By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
There has been an appropriate swell of attention to the life and words of Nelson Mandela since the world leader's death last Thursday. Less emphasized in the tributes is the fact of what Nelson Mandela was before he was a protest leader, then prisoner, then president, then father of a new South Africa. Before that, he was a lawyer. In fact, he founded the first black law practice in Johannesburg. That experience came to the fore in his 1964 trial in Pretoria for sabotage. Facing a potential death by hanging, Mandela addressed the court in a "Statement from the Dock." Often it's an occasion for an expression of remorse or a plea for leniency. But Mandela, the lawyer, turned it into a detailed factual and historical exposition seeking to make his case much as a closing argument does in U.S. courts.
For more than four hours, Mandela spoke carefully and in detail, not only to his own charges, but also to the larger injustice of South African Apartheid. Addressing the brutal inequalities, as well as the stark history of atrocities like the Sharpville massacre, he was speaking not only to the white judge, but to the world as well. He ended that argument with words the world remembers:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
The trial ended with a sentence of life, not death, and Mandela spent 27 years in prison on Robben Island before he emerged and changed the world. In this post, I'd like to try to wring one more lesson from this great man's life by taking a closer look at the speech that ended on that note.